FOXBOROUGH — Only in the alternate reality forged in Fort Foxborough could replacing an iconic, four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with a guy who threw four passes last season and boasts as many NFL starts as Kenny G be business as usual.
Provisional Patriots starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a.k.a. Jimmy G, peppered his news conference with banalities. He said "nothing has really changed," despite inheriting the formidable task of replacing Tom Brady for the first four games of the regular season.
Rob Gronkowski was asked about the Deflategate-forced QB change and said: "It's not a difference at all. It's not a change at all. It's training camp. It's not going to be any different. You take reps with every single quarterback . . . every single year in camp." Oy.
Despite the nothing-to-see-here approach, Day 1 of training camp practice represented a sea change for the Patriots. It goes beyond parsing how coach Bill Belichick divvies up QB reps in padless training camp sessions.
A team that has come to rely on having a quarterback who masks roster holes and disguises talent shortcomings won't have that for the first quarter of the season. Brady always has been able to enhance the talent around him or compensate for a lack thereof. Now, the Patriots have a young quarterback who is going to require the roster to enhance him, at least initially. That changes everything. No amount of Patriots lobotomy tripe can change that.
For the first time since 2001, the Patriots kicked off camp knowing someone other than Brady is earmarked to take the snaps when the games get real. We have Roger Goodell and the NFL's pursuit of Spygate retribution, er . . . PSI justice to thank for Garoppolo's big break.
The Patriots are going to try to turn the dark cloud of Deflategate into Garoppolo's chance to shine.
We don't know if Garoppolo is ready for his QB close-up. We do know that the third-year QB has a better pedigree than the last Patriots understudy who had to fill in for Brady — Matt Cassel.
When Cassel was pressed into the starting role in 2008 after Bernard Pollard plowed into Brady's knee just 15 snaps into the season, he was a seventh-round pick who hadn't started a football game since high school.
A 2014 second-round pick, Garoppolo won the Football Championship Subdivision version of the Heisman Trophy (the Walter Payton Award) in 2013, after throwing for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns for Eastern Illinois.
His coach there, Dino Babers, went on ESPN Radio recently and called Garoppolo the "William Tell of college football" for his accuracy. Babers said Garoppolo had the best release this side of Dan Marino. Babers must have forgotten to mention that Garoppolo is as eloquent as Winston Churchill when calling out signals.
Garoppolo certainly looks the part of a starting NFL quarterback. He knows this is his chance to prove it.
"It's a great opportunity. I've got to go out there and take advantage of it," said Garoppolo. "You don't get many opportunities in this league. You might only get one, so you've got to make the best of it."
But he's not going to be asked to be Brady-like or Brady-Lite right away. The Patriots will lean on a talented supporting cast to buy Garoppolo time to get acclimated to life as a starter.
That's what happened with Cassel in 2008. He inherited a record-setting offense from '07. In Cassel's first two games he threw a total of 41 passes and passed for fewer than 200 yards in both. By the end of the year, he had two 400-yard games and a four-touchdown-pass performance to his name.
Cassel had 15 games to progress to that point and Garoppolo has four.
However, having Gronk, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, and healthy versions of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom started camp on the physically unable to perform list, should ease Garoppolo's nerves and his transition.
"It's awesome. It makes my job a whole lot easier, that's for sure," said Garoppolo. "That's some big-bodied guys out there. Martellus, he had a nice catch today. Gronk had a couple of nice ones. So when you have guys like that it always makes throwing it a lot easier."
He also has a loaded defense that should be able to win at least two of the four games against Arizona, Miami, Houston, and Buffalo, even if Garoppolo can't put up the Patriots' customary 30 points per game.
Putting Garoppolo in the best position to succeed is a delicate dance for Belichick.
That was obvious Thursday. It looked like a customary training camp practice with Brady as the No. 1 until the Patriots broke into 11-on-11 action. Garoppolo got the first reps and got the starting offensive line.
When the Patriots went to dual 11-on-11 action, using both practice fields, Garoppolo was on one field throwing to Gronk and Bennett against the first-team secondary.
Brady was on the near field. He had Hogan. But at one point Brady threw a pass to rookie wide receiver Devin Lucien, a seventh-round draft pick who was covered by undrafted rookie cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc.
Brady had come full circle back to 2000.
Jimmy G feigned that he didn't notice any difference in how the reps were doled out. The mind-set he has maintained since he was a rookie hasn't changed because his role has.
"I've been preparing to be the starter since the first day I walked in here, and that's just the mind-set," said Garoppolo. "Every competitor has that mind-set."
It's daunting for any young quarterback to be thrust into a starting role on a Super Bowl contender, but in Garoppolo's case, he has the added burden of an unkind comparison. Brady has set the quarterback bar to Burj Khalifa height during his tenure. Even Belichick tagged Brady as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) this offseason.
The good news is that Garoppolo doesn't have to be Brady.
It's time for the Patriots to carry the QB for once.